At a recent luncheon hosted by the United Way of Larimer County at The Rio I sat sipping a margarita, on the rocks with salt. An acquaintance came over to say hi and the first thing out of his mouth was, “you’re the beer girl, why are you drinking a marg?”. While beer is my adult beverage of choice, it doesn’t mean that is all I have to drink. It is nice to switch it up every now and then. When I go to Fish I usually drink wine. I don’t even have to order an apple whiskey old fashioned at Ace Gillett’s, the bartender already knows that is what I want. Everyone cross drinks. Fort Collins is about to get another option for cross drinking as a new distillery, Feisty Spirits, is getting ready to bring this beer town some whiskey.
I was recently invited to a tasting at Feisty Spirits, so my Brunch ‘n’ Brew group decided to make a day of it. When we walked into the space in a tiny strip mall on Lincoln Ave you wouldn’t have known it was a distillery. A couch sat against one wall and two offices were along the other. Eventually, this space will become the tasting room as soon as the city grants them the proper permits for construction. I am sure it will look much better without the carpeting that looks as if it should be in an elementary school classroom.
Owners Jamie Gulden and David Monahan took us to the backroom, which was indicative of what the distillery will look like when complete. The first thing you noticed was a big, shiny 60 gallon still. Unable to use this still yet until the proper approval, a small copper still sat on a table with clear liquid dripping into a mason jar. Hundreds of mason jars covered almost every surface. They were all different sizes, filled with liquids of all kinds of colors and amounts. It was reminiscent of a mad scientist lab.
We began the day by learning about distillation. Being beer nerds, we only knew the basics of the process. We went around smelling mashes, and checking out the small still as David explained to us the process of creating whiskey. Feisty Spirits typically uses grain flours, but not all the time, to create their mash. Adding amylase to the hot wort mixture of grain and water, it starts the process of turning the flour into fermentable sugars for the yeast to eat. After the yeast has done it’s job in the mash for about a week, the wort is added to the still pot. Here, condensation and evaporation separate the alcohol from the water. Alcohol evaporates at 80 degrees, while water at 100. Regulating the temperature allows for what will become whiskey to be taken out of the water and concentrated.
The large still at Feisty Spirits contains 4 “thumpers”, or chambers in the column that are responsible for condensing the alcohol. This is a typical amount for a whiskey still, but vodka stills can have up to 20. Before their small still, they were making alcohol from a small heated water purifier. The first bit of whiskey they comes out of a still usually has a strong acid aldyehyde, or green apple taste. This is caused by the yeast and often thrown out or sent through the distillation process again. We got to taste some of the first runnings, or kamut, from the small still that was going, and tart apple was very apparent, even being an off flavor I am not sensitive too.
Now that we understood how it was made, it was time to taste it! There was a table set up in the middle of the room, covered in a handful of mason jars and shot glasses. Knowing our love for beer, we started with whiskeys that had been distilled from beer. We tried a Cutthroat Porter from Odells that was 130 proof, a homebrewed porter and a beer from Pateros Creek Brewing Co. Distilling beer into alcohol is a great way to use batches that have gone wrong, and Feisty Spirits plans to utilize this resource from the many breweries in town.
From here, David lined up a great order for us to learn how the different grains, and other additives, changed the outcome of the whiskey. They are in the process of fine tuning their recipes, which is why there were so many different jars everywhere. We ended up being a sort of tasting panel for Jamie and David to see what people would enjoy.
We started with a 100% oat, unaged oat whiskey. It was followed by a half oat, half rye and then a 100% rye. Next we tried millet, spelt, barley and wheat. All of the grains produced different flavors. The spelt produced a more earthy flavor while the oats provided a thicker mouth feel. The blend of these two grains was my favorite. We also tried 100% sorgum syrup, the common ingredient used to make gluten free beers. I wasn’t a fan of this one.
Bourbons, or whiskey made with over 51% corn, was the next batch we tasted. These were bolder in flavor, and tickled my nose when I tried to do the beer-tasting retro nasal. To age bourbons and whiskeys, distillers must use new American oak barrels, and for test batches they used oak chips. Many of the infused and aged ones we tasted after the basics were bourbons and not whiskeys.
Next we moved onto distilled mead. A blackberry mead that was aged with rose hips was floral and sweet, perfect to mix into a summer cocktail. The mead that was aged with anise was a hit or miss, you either loved it, or hated it. Black licorice is one of the worst inventions ever, so I did not enjoy it. A distilled cider was very close to tasting just like a normal fermented cider, but you got a little alcoholic bite at the end.
As we went along into the infused and aged alcohols, David would pour us a taste, and have us guess what flavors where in it. This was a great way to test our pallets. Some were easy to pick out, such as lavender, cinnamon, peach and coconut. Ones that were a bit harder to detect were pumpkin, rhubarb, and blackberry. The favorite of the group was the vanilla bean and orange peel infused bourbon, it really was a phenomenal flavor.
Last, we tried some cocktail tricks to drastically change the flavors. An oat and barley whiskey was harsh alone, but a drop of Horsetooth Hotsauce balanced it out. Same with a a rye and oat, that alone was flavorless and burned, but with a drop of bitters was tolerable.
When all was said and done we had tried 27 different whiskeys. The creativity and innovation of recipes in Feisty Spirits is something I never thought I would see outside of the brewing industry. The passion and knowledge they have for their craft is what has helped propel this city, and even though they are not making beer, they are going to fit right in. I cannot wait for their tasting room to open (hopefully) in early 2013.